Mountain Laurel, Mescalbean

Sophora secundiflora (Ort.) Lag. ex DC
Fabaceae (Legume Family)

Mountain laurel is a small, evergreen tree or shrub, that can grow to 30 feet tall. Its hardy nature and attractive, deep green foliage makes this tree a desirable landscaping plant. The beautiful purple flowers appear early in the spring, producing a literally intoxicating aroma. Mountain laurel is native to the drier regions of the Edwards Plateau and the Trans-Pecos into southeastern New Mexico, and along rocky outcrops in the Rio Grande Plains. It grows throughout much of northeastern and north central Mexico, southward along the Sierra Madre Oriental (Cox and Leslie 1988; Powell 1998). The tree produces a tough woody bean pod that houses bright red, hard, seeds commonly referred to as mescalbeans. Mescalbeans are poisonous, yet they were used by native socities for ritual purposes, because of its powerful psychoactive properties. The bright red beans were also used for ornamentation.

The common name mescalbean has caused a lot of confusion with mescal, an alcoholic drink distilled from the baked and fermented hearts of agave. The best known type of mescal is tequila, which is made from cultivated "blue agave,"Agave tequiliana Weber (Gentry 1982:14-16). By contrast, mescalbean is the seed of the mountain laurel, a small tree in the legume or bean family. Unfortunately, the term mescalbean is imbedded in the literature. Therefore during this discussion, I will follow the example set by Merrill (1977) and refer to the seed as a mescalbean, but I will refer to the tree as a mountain laurel.

Archeological occurrence. Fruit pods from the mountain laurel and mescalbeans are ubiquitous throughout the dry archeological deposits of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands (Dering 1979; Irving 1966). Radiocarbon dates from Hinds Cave, indicate that mescalbeans were brought into the shelters in the Lower Pecos region at least as early as 6,500 years ago and probably much earlier. Mescalbeans have been recovered from several rockshelters to the east in Edwards County. They may be present in collections from Frightful Cave in the Cuatrocienegas Basin of Coahuila, Mexico (Adovasio and Fry 1976; Butler 1948; Campbell 1957; Merrill 1977; Taylor 1988). Cueva Candelaria, in the southwestern corner of Coahuila, contains necklaces made of bone and unidentified seeds that resemble discolored mescalbean seeds (Arroyo de Anda et al. 1956:125).

Although most of the mescalbeans and pods occur widely in the midden, or trash deposits of archeological sites in the region of southwestern Texas, they have been noted in more specific contexts. For example, a buckskin loincloth decorated with mescalbeans was recovered from Murrah Cave (Holden 1937; Boyd 2003). Another discovery attests to the importance of these seeds in the ancient culture of the region. This is illustrated by their presence in a carefully buried bag from Horseshoe Ranch Cave in southern Val Verde County. This bag contained mescalbeans and Mexican buckeye seeds, both poisonous, as well as a flintknapper's tools, jackrabbit mandibles, fiber, sinew, a buckskin thong, and red ochre. This kit has been described as a hunter's kit or a healer's kit (Butler 1948; Shafer and Zintgraff 1986; Boyd and Dering 2005), and given the interwoven nature of religion and subsistence in a hunter-gatherer life, it probably served as both.

Chemical composition. Mescalbeans contain an abundance of poisonous narcotic quinolizidine alkaloids, including cystine, N-methylcistine, and sparteine. The many physiological effects of mescalbean intoxication include muscle paralysis, nausea, evacuation of the bowels, seeing red, unconsciousness, and death (Hatfield et al. 1977). These alkaloids are not, however, hallucinogenic, rather, the mescalbean and its purgative effects, along with many other sensory inputs, helped the vision-seeker reach a culturally defined condition in which to receive visions (Merrill 1977:4). Because of its extreme physiological effects, the mountain laurel tree, or at least its seed, was likely viewed as a powerful plant worthy of trade and of decorating ritual clothing.

In the following sections I briefly relate the use of mescalbean in ceremonies and material culture. This subject has been covered in a monograph by William Merrill (1977) and I refer the reader to this detailed scholarly account for more information.

Religion and ritual. There is tremendous time depth for the use of mescalbean, and likely for its cultural significance among Native Americans of the territory now covered by Texas and Mexico as noted by the archeological record. However, the use of the mescalbean spread far beyond the natural territory of the mountain laurel tree during the historic period. The 19th century, a period of tragic upheaval for Indian peoples, saw the rise of several societies or revitalization movements, including the rise and spread of the mescalbean society. Details of these societies varied from group to group but they generally limited membership to men, and typically consumed a concoction made from mescalbeans during at least some ceremonies. In some groups only novitiates consumed mescalbeans (eg. Pawnee and Wichita); in a few groups, such as some of the displaced Algonquian-speaking groups (eg. Sac, Fox, Shawnee), there is no record of consumption, only a record of the society. Membership was restrictive and often the new member had to buy his way into the society.

Some groups attached the mescalbean only to objects associated with ritual. For example they attached the seeds to objects, or kept them in medicine bundles, owned by men usually belonging to a mescalbean medicine society. These groups included the Pawnee, Wichita, Iowa, Oto, Omaha, Ponca Missouri, and Osage. The Wichita and Pawnee associated mescalbeans with deer ceremonialism. And, attesting to the recent rise of mescalbean use, many groups associated mescalbeans with horses, and with success in raiding expeditions.

Ceremonial use of mescalbeans was not limited to groups that had restrictive mescalbean societies. Among some Coahuilteco-speaking groups, the Hasinai Caddo, and the Tonkawa, observers noted that both men and women participated in mescalbean-centered ceremonies. The Hasinai used the mescalbean in ceremonies to produce visions and prior to conducting raids. The bright red mescalbeans were associated with warfare, and appear on clothing worn into battle (Swanton 1942; Vogel 1970) .

Hasinai, Coahuilteco, and Tonkawa mixed mescalbeans into other intoxicating drinks. The Mescalero Apache apparently once mixed the seeds with tulbai (corn beer), but this account contains such odd details that it casts into doubt the veracity of the informant (Castetter and Opler 1936:54).

Clothing, and other objects. Many groups utilized mescalbeans in clothing and adornment but did not maintain a mescal bean society. These include the Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Sac Fox, Kiowa-Apache, Western Apache, and the Tewa. Mescalbeans were used to decorate shirts, leggings, bags, necklaces, dresses, bandoleers, warrior dolls, and medicine bags.

Medicine. Mescalbeans were apparently used in a few medical applications. The Comanche used the seeds for earaches. The Cheyenne used the beans as an eyewash and consumed the mescalbean in ceremonies not associated directly with mescalbean societies.

References:

Adovasio, James M. and Gary Fry
1976  Prehistoric Psychotropic Drug Use in Northeastern Mexico and Trans-Pecos Texas. Economic Botany 30:94-96.

Arroyo de Anda, Luis Aveleyra, Manuel Maldonado-Koerdell, and Pablo Martinez del Rio
1956  Cueva del la Candelaria: Volumen I. Memorias del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Mexico, D.F.

Boyd, Carolyn E.
2003  Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. Texas A&M University Press. College Station, Texas.

Boyd, Carolyn E. and J. Philip Dering
2005  Tools of the Shaman or the Hunter? A Review of Material Culture in the Lower Pecos Region of Texas and Mexico. Presented at the 70th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, March 31, 2005. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Butler, Charles T,, Jr.
1948  A West Texas Rock Shelter. Unpublished M.A. Thesis. University of Texas at Austin. Austin, Texas.

Campbell, Thomas N.
1957  The Fields Shelter: An Archeological Site in Edwards County, Texas. The Texas Journal of Science 9:7-25.

Castetter Edward F. and Morris Opler
1936  The Ethnobiology of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache: A. The Use of Plants for Foods, Beverages, and Narcotics. Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest. Vol. III. The University of New Mexico Bulletin, Biological Series 4(5). Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Cox, Paul and Patty Leslie
1988  Texas Trees: A Friendly Guide. Corona Publishing Co. San Antonio, Texas

Dering, J. Philip
1979  Pollen and Plant Macrofossil Vegetation Record Recovered from Hinds Cave, Val Verde County, Texas. Unpublished Masters Thesis. Texas A&M University. College Station, Texas.

Gentry, Howard S.
1982  Agaves of Continental North America. University of Arizona Press. Tucson, Arizona.

Hatfield, G. M., J. J. Valdes, W. L. Merrill, and V. H. Jones
1977  An Investigation of the Sophora secundiflora Seeds (Mescalbeans). Lloydia 40(4): 374-383.

Holden, William C.
1937  Excavation of Murrah Cave. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological and Paleontological Society 9:48-23.

Merrill, William L.
1977  An Investigation of Ethnographic and Archaeological Specimens of Mescalbeans (Sophora secundiflora) in American Museums. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Pennington, Campbell W.
1969  The Tepehuan of Chihuahua: Their Material Culture. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Powell, A. Michael
1998  Trees and Shrubs of the Trans-Pecos and Adjacent Areas. University of Texas Press. Austin, Texas

Robbins, Wilfred William, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Freire-Marreco
1916  Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 55. Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.

Taylor, Walter W.
1988  Contribution to Coahuila Archaeology with an Introduction to the Coahuila Project. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Center for Archaeological Investigations Report No. 52. Carbondale, Illinois.

Vogel, Virgil
1970  American Indian Medicine. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma.

 

photo of mountain laurel with pods
Mountain laurel with pods.

 

photo of mountain laurel pod cut open to reveal the red beans inside.
Mountain laurel pod cut open to reveal the red beans inside.